How Dewar's death exposes the frailty of devolution

The tributes to Scotland's First Minister have glossed over the complex nightmare he leaves behind

Share

Never mind the quality, feel the width. The greatest testimony to Donald Dewar's political significance has been the sheer scale of the tributes.
Newsnight devoted almost its entire programme to his death. The
Nine O'Clock News had four separate reports, taking up over half the bulletin. The broadsheets all led with the story and had copious tributes and analysis inside.

Never mind the quality, feel the width. The greatest testimony to Donald Dewar's political significance has been the sheer scale of the tributes. Newsnight devoted almost its entire programme to his death. The Nine O'Clock News had four separate reports, taking up over half the bulletin. The broadsheets all led with the story and had copious tributes and analysis inside.

If Mr Dewar had died as a plain old secretary of state for Scotland in a Britain that did not have a Scottish Parliament, the tone of the tributes would have been precisely the same, but the amount of coverage would have been much smaller.

Indeed it would have been smaller for most members of the Westminster cabinet. Mr Dewar mattered because he was Scotland's First Minister, a more significant post as far as many Scots are concerned than Prime Minister. The rest of Britain took note, too, that Scotland had lost its leading figure. Before devolution Scotland did not have a leading figure.

The reporting told us at least as much about the changed political geography of Britain as it did about Mr Dewar. As the politician who did more than most to bring about the change, Mr Dewar would have liked that.

Even so, there has been something disingenuous about the doting obituaries, as there was when John Smith suddenly died. The Scottish newspapers that are now portraying Mr Dewar as a saint have been savaging him for the last 18 months. Until his death, anyone reading their hyperbolic reporting of Scottish politics would have concluded that the First Minister was hanging on to power by his fingertips, thrown from one apparent crisis to another. The newspaper coverage in Scotland of Mr Dewar's regime was similar to the media treatment of John Major's government in its dying days.

The hysteria surrounding Mr Major's decline was largely justified. Anyone visiting Scotland would quickly realise that the newspapers had exaggerated Mr Dewar's difficulties. Nonetheless he did face seemingly insurmountable problems at times and it would be wrong to airbrush them out of history.

In some ways he was too decent for the trauma of this new political experiment. The qualities he is being praised for now - his indifference to presentation, his scholarly openness - were not so valued when it looked as if Labour was going to lose the Scottish elections last year to the SNP. In the end Gordon Brown and his entourage were forced to vacate the Treasury for a few weeks to turn the elections around. Mr Brown succeeded partly because of his astute presentational skills.

There is no question that Mr Dewar was an immensely talented politician, probably the only one who could deliver devolution. It certainly seemed to be beyond the skills of the multi-talented George Robertson, who came badly unstuck when he was shadow Scottish secretary in the run-up to the general election. As his party's Europe spokesman Mr Robertson acquired the reputation of being the only man in the Commons who understood every word and nuance of the thorny Maastricht treaty. Maastricht he could handle. The politics of devolution he could not.

Most of the time Mr Dewar could. But even he looked vulnerable at times as the SNP threat rose, the Lib Dems proved awkward partners, and the papers wielded their unforgiving knives. To suggest otherwise, to paint the immediate past in a rosy glow, would be to underplay the fragility, the nightmarish complexities of getting devolution to work. Such a rewriting of recent history will not help the much smaller political figure who will inherit the crown.

In reality, Mr Dewar leaves a paradoxical legacy. The reaction to his death shows that the notion of devolution is already embedded in the psyche of Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The weeks ahead will highlight his indispensability and expose the frailty of his devolution project.

Tim Yeo, the Conservatives' agriculture spokesman, is unlikely to be remembered for any statement he has made on farming. Nor, unless the Tories win the next election, will he be Britain's next agriculture minister. Yet Mr Yeo is a defining figure in the modern Conservative Party. In a very different way from Mr Dewar, Mr Yeo deserves his place in history. He has pointed the way to his party's future and drawn a line under its past.

Of the eight members of the Shadow Cabinet who confessed to smoking pot, Mr Yeo's was the most startling. He told a newspaper that he smoked it and enjoyed the experience. This went a little further than his other colleagues who had confessed to inhaling but left us in the dark as to what happened to them next. We do not know whether they threw their joint away in disgust or, like the agriculture spokesman, had a pretty cool time.

No doubt Mr Yeo's double whammy will have been especially painful for Ann Widdecombe, who was only just coming to terms with the most remarkable Shadow Cabinet revolt that I can recall. Now she has to get to grips with the notion that at least one of them enjoyed what they were doing. By that I mean at least one of them enjoyed the experience of smoking cannabis. All eight of them were on a high from the experience of knifing Ms Widdecombe.

But Mr Yeo is more significant than a one-time pot smoker. His name revives memories of the last time the Conservatives used a party conference to try to tell us how to behave. Again it was Mr Yeo who was instrumental in the moral bossiness backfiring, although on that occasion he undermined the Conservative leadership inadvertently.

In 1993 John Major launched his "Back to Basics" campaign at the party conference in Blackpool in a desperate bid to revive his government's fortunes. After the speech Downing Street prepared a document for ministers, leaked to the newspapers, in which it argued that the battle against socialism had been won. Now it was time to take on the new enemies of liberalism and permissiveness.

Unfortunately, the following Boxing Day the Daily Mail reported that Mr Yeo, then an Environment minister, had been behaving rather permissively himself. This time he had not been smoking pot, but had fathered a child with his mistress. This was the moment when "Back to Basics" started to unravel. As with the dope smoking, Mr Yeo was not alone. Other ministers and Tory MPs who were conducting illicit affairs wondered if they would be next. Some of them were. Secretly gay MPs trembled, too. "Back to Basics" was dropped almost as brutally as Ms Widdecombe's hardline proposals for dope smokers.

The Conservatives could not deliver a populist authoritarian agenda in 1993 and they cannot do so now. The internal debate between liberalism and authoritarianism is over before it has properly begun. The Tories' personal behaviour prevents them from moralising to the rest of us.

Here is a prediction. After the next election the Tories, desperately seeking definition, will become the party of social liberalism - because so many of their leading lights have been socially liberal themselves. Mr Yeo will have led the way.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?